The Very Basics of Running Safety in the Dark & Snowy Winter

Winter Run Safety1

I cannot believe that I recently found myself in a position of debating some of the core, basic, common sense safety rules for running in the dark during winter. I mean, all you have to do is go to any running site and there will be a ‘Top 10 Winter Running Tips’ article or more every year, and they pretty much assume that you have SOME basic idea as an adult about basic safety. And yet … there I was befuddled by this other person, someone who other runners look to for advice, wondering whether it was ignorance (he is a trail runner for the most part) or machismo that caused him to take these positions. Megan wrote a while back about ‘letting it go’, that sometimes being right doesn’t make the argument worthwhile. So I did – I stepped away and didn’t participate.

But what I could NOT let go is the possibility that someone would listen to that bad advice and end up hurt. As we start a new year we will have new runners trying to keep resolutions. So here are a few core safety items for all runners:

1. Know Your Route
– Make sure you have a known route that provides you with all you need to stay safe. Snowy and icy days are NOT the times for ‘route discovery’, and ESPECIALLY during an active storm.
– Looping your neighborhood for mileage might seem boring, but if that is the safest choice … stick to it!
– For example, there is a ~100 meter section of the main road near me that has <12" of space between the travel lane and a jagged road edge that drops 12 – 18' at a steep angle. With snow and ice that edge gets further blurred, making it an easy spot to lose footing. In bad conditions I avoid that section.

2. Maximize Your Awareness
– I am a vocal advocate of taking off your earbuds while running outdoors. But ESPECIALLY when it is dark and wintery. You really want to make sure you can hear anything going on around you.
– When it is ‘hat weather’, use ‘tech’ instead of ‘bulk’. Older hats relied on bulk for warmth, whereas new tech materials work to keep your own heat trapped to form a thermal layer. This allows much thinner and lighter layers – and better hearing.
– Avoid hoods, or anything else that obscures your peripheral vision. In snow with sun, sunglasses are more important than during the summer. But make sure yours have an open side-view. Also, if you need a hood to protect against wind, make sure it isn’t blocking your vision.

3. Make Yourself Visible
– Wear bright colors. For example: I got a black thermal base layer for Christmas. Which is great, but it will never go with me as a ‘only layer’ the way my bright yellow one does – because I run in the dark and don’t want to be invisible.
– Reflective EVERYTHING – Brooks has the best stuff, because it ALL has reflective elements. But most gear now has some amount of reflectivity, and in the morning add on a reflective vest, cuffs, and so on.
– Head lamp / Wrist lights / flashers / etc – these make you visible a long way off and give drivers the chance to prepare. We have a young woman who runs with hand-lights, and I estimated the other night driving the boys that I could see her nearly 3/4 mile away. I wear a head lamp all the time. Another bonus – a head-lamp helps you navigate the lousy edges of many roads. And see critters who seek trash cans in the early mornings of spring and fall (e.g. skunks)

4. Run Defensively
– In the battle of Man vs. Car … car ALWAYS wins. So do EVERYTHING to ensure you never enter that battle.
– Run facing traffic – that gives you more warning about what is coming, and with your reflective gear and lights, they can also see you coming.
– Know your ‘escape route’. I mean this in case a car slips, but also in case you find yourself being followed/pursued.
– Remember that no amount of lights / safety gears is a ‘sure thing’, and that your own attention to safety has to be constant and unrelenting – which is also why I am an advocate for maximizing awareness.

As I said, these are just the basics – there are other considerations:
Women: I absolutely HATE that there is an entire set of ‘gender specific’ rules, but while there are cases of men runners getting shot or otherwise killed, in general when you hear about assault, rape, kidnapping or other things happening to runners – it is to women. Dorothy Beal has a couple of great posts here and here to help you.
Hydration / Fuel: you need to work just as hard to stay hydrated in winter, but your body doesn’t scream for it like during the summer. And if you are going to be away from home for a while, be sure to carry some fuel (Gu, energy bar, etc) and water.
Cell Phone: true confession – until recently I ran with my phone ONLY on the weekends or evenings. On my morning runs I would leave it at home. The sad thing is that it is your easiest and most direct safety ‘lifeline’ and should always be with you. Please buy a belt and carry your phone … also a RoadID is a great idea.
Hypothermia: the picture below is my slushy and soaked shoes from a couple of nights ago. We had 3-4″ of slushy snow and the temperatures were just above freezing. My feet were soaked within a quarter mile. And then I ran a total of 7.75 miles. Fortunately at the outdoor temperatures I was not in danger of hypothermia – but my feet were never warm the entire time. Running outside presents some real dangers of hypothermia due to wind and low temperatures. Be aware and dress appropriately.

Winter Run Safety3

My Winter Running Goals

Snow Running

This week at work there have been a number of meetings and joint sessions and other events within my project, and as a matter of course running came up many times. I was asked if I was running more races in the winter, what race plans I had for next year, and so on. And while I don’t have a ‘race calendar’ set up yet, I definitely have race goals and plans to meet those goals.

Here are my goals for 2014:
– Stay healthy and injury-free
– Continue to love my morning runs
– Break 4 hours in a marathon
– Run at least 2 marathons
– Run at least 2 half-marathons
– Run an Ultra – in this case I mean 50 miles, not 50k.

So … how do I plan to use the next four frigid months? Just a few simple guidelines:
– Run 6 days per week
– Run at least 5 miles per day
– Make one run each week a ‘run with purpose’
– Do more strength / bodyweight exercise
– Keep my clean/healthy eating habits up

It seems like a simple thing … but it really isn’t. Getting up to head out in sub-freezing temperatures with any variety of weather and wind conditions quickly gets tiresome, although once I actually DO leave the house doing at least 5 miles is not an issue – unless there is ice.

And what is a ‘run with purpose’? Generally some sort of speed or form-based activity. The other day I realized that I have been tapering or building for two months now, between the Wineglass and Red Baron. My last ‘purpose’ runs were all about ‘running by feel’, and I’m happy with how that has been going. So now it is time to get back to working on pace and speed.

I have been making an effort to minimize my ‘morning dawdle’ since mentioning it last week and have been doing well … and really feel good about keeping it up. I mentioned that last year I had the fear that I would fail to sustain my running through the winter – that is not a concern this year.

What are your winter running plans and race plans for the spring?